Category Archives: Canada

Learn to be an ally, friend.

I still get emails in my inbox everyday… particularly for one blog post about why it makes you racist if you’re proud to be white.

A LOT of these comments are vile – really racist trolls who sacrifice their time of day to write comments to my blog. Since this is my space , most of these comments don’t see the light of day and simply get deleted.

I did put up some examples of vile comments in this blog post recently and if you were interested to read some examples of ‘Good Mornings’ I’ve been getting for the past few months, go ahead and read them here.

Otherwise, below is a succinct explanation of why I will continue to leave the blog post up. Someone else has succinctly written this paragraph and expressed their sentiments about guilt vs. allyship better than me so here are their words:

I am not calling for ‘white guilt.’ Guilt re-situates the oppressor in the centre of the response to this oppressiveness. Your guilt is not necessary, or useful. Instead I ask for you to become an ally. Allyship means discussing, situating yourself within, and challenging privilege. Having privilege does not make you a bad person. You were born with it; it is not your fault. However, are you going to use it to perpetuate systems of oppression? Or are you willing to validate experiences, not give dismissive and patronizing responses to the experience of minoritized communities, and engage in respectful discourse over race and its effects? It means not making wistfully patronizing statements about your desire for minoritization. Likewise, it means realizing that whiteness is a form of racialization, just as constructed and mediated (but not nearly as oppressed) as any other racialization, that needs discussing and deconstructing. You’re racist. It’s not (fundamentally) your fault, until you decide to do nothing about it. Now do something.

–       Reblogged from McGill Daily

Let’s be clear here: EVERYONE has something they can work on when it comes to overcoming guilt and instead, learning to become an ally or friend.

Just because I am not white doesn’t mean I don’t have shit to work on in my life. I am still learning how to overcome my guilt associated with my privilege to immigrate to this land people call Canada. I am still learning how to become a friend and ally to the First Nations communities that are here – the Musqueam, the Tsleil-Watuth, the Squamish peoples – whose land I reside on and whose land I am complicit in ensuring it remains oppressed, fracked, taken advantage of, whose land I eat and breathe and live from, whose land I found love, whose land I make my living off of. I am still learning how to do this. And this is only one of the few things I am learning how to do.

Some of us have more shit to work on than the rest of us because some of us have been born with more privilege. And those of us who have more privilege have more reasons NOT to do this work – whether it be a thought that ‘this doesn’t matter’ or that you might lose something if you do it.  This risk assessment is the exact reason why it makes it all the more important that you DO do the work.

Just because you learn how to be anti-racist doesn’t mean you will lose your privilege. It doesn’t mean brown and black people will suddenly take over the world and put all the whiteys in concentration camps. Trust me, your privilege will still be there. The difference is you’ll be less of an asshole next time you talk to someone. Who knows, you might even start to have deeper conversations with those brown/black friends of yours whose presence in your life you so desperately call on to prove you’re not a racist. (by the way, doing this is what makes it racist).

For all you trolls out there, if you still don’t get it after reading this post – I really have nothing to say. I intend this to be the final time I revisit this particular blog post because frankly, I’m sick of your shit. Keep your comments coming and I’ll keep deleting them.


White Paper, Red Eyes

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Last night, I decided to read the ‘Population White Paper’ document that has been making its rounds on Singaporean news networks. The ‘Population White Paper’ is a document that outlines population policies for the next few decades. Mostly, the news reports were about how flawed the document from what the title of the paper should actually be to immigration policies  and  baby policies.

So naturally, as a lover of intellectual debate, an amateur policy analyst and a mid-level shit disturber,  I decided to weigh in on the topic. Unfortunately, the only outlet I have as a 20-something Malay woman living abroad to get my thoughts heard is the Internet. So I took to Facebook and over a 30 minute period, updated my status and comment sections with my thoughts on the White Paper.

This commentary below would make more sense if you have read the actual document. Here it is. 

If you’re too lazy for that and I don’t blame you, imagine a government document with lots of touristy pictures of Singapore and its people all happy in pictures where multicultural beings wave red and white flags and children run in the park with kites. That interspersed with graphs, pie charts of population statistics and a whole bunch of words and sentences that start with ‘We will continue to…’ and ‘We must ensure…’

So here is a screenshot of the running commentary on Facebook:

white paper

If you click on the image and zoom in on it on your webpage, you should be able to read it. Otherwise, here is a transcript below:

Status update – Monday, February 4th 2013 at 8.30pm: 

finally got the time to read Singapore’s recently released ‘Population White Paper’ and am already laughing at the second page. Get a load of this bull:

“We may have diverse geographical and ethnic backgrounds, but we are all Singaporean because we share certain key values and aspirations including meritocracy, a fair and just society, and respect for one another’s culture within a broad common space where all interact and bond.”


haha! gonna continue reading this tonight and see what else I can laugh at sarcastically.

Comment update – 8.35 pm:

I’m having a hard time stomaching the binaries between civilized and non-civilized here. We get it Singapore. You is developed. You is smart. You is also paranoid as shit with other countries ‘catching up on you’.

Comment update – 8.37 pm :

“We will continue to welcome immigrants who can contribute to Singapore, share our values and integrate into our society.”

read: we love people who think like us. otherwise, we dont give a shit about you. kindly exile yourself in other places. until you win the Nobel Peace Prize at which point, it will suddenly become important that you are Singaporean.

Comment update – 8.38 pm:

“Taking in younger immigrants will help us top up the smaller cohorts of younger Singaporeans and balance the ageing of our citizen population.”

We can top up populations like we top up EZ link cards.

Comment update, 8.40pm:

“Our economy must stay ahead of other Asian cities, so that we can provide them with the high-end goods and services that they need but are not yet able to produce themselves.”

read: we must make sure that we continue to oppress the working classes in our own country but also in the other countries of South East Asia.

Comment update, 8.43 pm:

OH something good at last:

‘99% of married respondents in the 2012 Marriage and Parenthood Study agreed that fathers and mothers are equally important as caregivers for children.’

Comment update, 8.49 pm:

and an acknowledgment that Singaporeans abroad aren’t useless complete with an acknowledgment? plea? for us to come home.

“Many Singaporeans living overseas continue to contribute actively to Singapore from around the world. We hope they will return home after studies or working stints abroad, adding a further dimension to our society.”

read: we want you to come home but we won’t listen to anything you have to say because you are now too Westernized. go sit in the corner and learn the words to ‘Dick Lee’s ‘Home’ again.

Comment update, 8. 54 pm:

investing in education sounds good and then it ends with this:

“The Ministry of Education is also conducting a study to see how to increase access and quality in the pre-school education sector.”

great. so my non-existent children can now be diagnosed with anxiety disorders at a younger age.

Comment update, 8.57 pm : 

what is up with the coy ‘we love immigrants but we cant let too many of you guys in’ thing? make up your mind. you can’t use people like tissue paper. get em when you need them then chuck them. sheesh.

Comment update, 8.59 pm :

“All our public buses will be wheelchair-accessible by 2020, up from about half today.”


Comment update, 9.02 pm:

This is laughable:

“Our immigrant heritage has shaped the Singapore of today, including the values that we hold dear – respect for others, family ties, hard worj, meritocracy, multi-racialism as well as a robust sense of social justice, harmony and cohesion. These values have enabled Singapore to develop into a First World Country in a few short decades.”

HELLO, Singapore. Not all of us have ‘immigrant heritage’. Some of us are actually indigenous to the archipelago. But oh yea. You’ve been trying reallllllyyyy hard to forget that.

Comment update, 9.02 pm:

that followed by pictures of smiling people waving singapore flags. LOLLLL

Comment update, 9.03pm:

I have now finished reading the document. overall, an informative read – some interesting bits for sure that make me excited to be a part of the growth but some pretty serious flaws in this document.

Comment from a friend, 2 hours later:


As always, it seems as if policies don’t match with the real experiences of Singaporeans on the ground.

I know that feelings of mistrust and racism are growing towards ‘foreigners’ especially towards new non-white immigrants. If we keep talking about integration of new immigrants, where is acknowledgment for the responsibility of Singaporeans to be more empathetic towards these new immigrants?

I’ve lived in Vancouver for 6 years now and though it is far from perfect, at the very least, there are outlets, programs and communities that engage new immigrants to help us ‘integrate’ and learn about the history of this city and its inhabitants of the white settlers and First Nations peoples. There is an honest acknowledgment (in some communities and increasingly so) that Vancouver sits on unceded Coast Salish territory and movements that explicitly support anti-racism on all fronts. Can Singapore say the same? Can we honestly and openly acknowledge that Singapore sits on ‘tanah Melayu’ and that the Malays are its indigenous population, not to a country that is only half a decade old but to a region and an archipelago that dates back hundreds of thousands of years?

As long as we do not admit this to ourselves and we continue to perpetuate the idea that all Singaporeans are immigrants, we will never be able to integrate our new immigrants properly. I have heard of new immigrants disrespecting Malays and it is not uncommon to see flaming Internet-ers making rude and racist comments about Malay and Tamil communities in Singapore. There are reasons for this just like there are reasons that the Chinese community escapes this treatment that the Malays and Indians are given.

As far as the half-assed plea for Singaporeans abroad to return, Singapore has made it abundantly clear that Singaporeans overseas are largely to fend for themselves. Unless one of us brings home an ‘internationally recognized award’ given to us by White Men in the West, our presence is unimportant just like our votes in any elections.

I do love Singapore. My roots are in Singapore. My family is in Singapore. My ancestors are from Singapore. The region is my home and the nation is my home. Singapore is where I grew up and its humidity is familiar to my brown skin.

But reading policies like these just make me angry, upset and lead me to question my value as a Singaporean. It affirms my decision of self-exile from Singapore until I accumulate more degrees and more knowledge that Singapore will someday deem ‘enough’, ‘acceptable’ and ‘important’.  For now, my radical left-winging shit disturbing, direct talking ways will have to wait. Singapore is not ready for me and I am not ready for Singapore.

I wish to return someday and be accepted for who I am fully, as a person – not just as a Malay person, not just as a woman, a baby-making machine, not just a young consumer but as a WHOLE person. I wish I can return someday and be loved.

I’m a skin-whitening, body-griping, anti-racist feminist. Yup.

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I might as well come right out and say it.

I have and continue to engage in skin-whitening practices.

Things I do include staying indoors when it’s too sunny out, worrying about my skin when I forget to put on sunscreen, carrying an umbrella or a hat around with me and yes, using skin-whitening facial products.

I have had to sort through many feelings of guilt and shame for engaging in these practices so I recognize that for me to ‘admit’ this in a public forum – on my blog, today- is an act of personal resistance.

I refuse to accept the shaming that happens to me and so many other women of color who most will label ‘race traitors’, women who hate our brown skin, women with low-self-esteem or women who have been victimized by the ‘system’. I reject the narrow interpretations and judgments of my actions. I reject the shaming of black and brown women who engage in skin-whitening practices.

What exactly is the point of shaming women for pursuing beauty when it is one of the few sites of power available to us while ignoring the sexist and racist systems that set up this situation in the first place???  It is unproductive. It robs us of our voices. It denies us the luxury of being contradictory and imperfect – like everybody else.

Skin-whitening has been a long running interest for me, both personally and professionally. Intellectually, I started engaging with this material in 2011 as a capstone paper for my Women Studies undergrad degree. Since then, I have presented my thoughts at several conferences including the F-Word conference at UBC on April 28, 2011 and the 12th International Conference on Diversity in June 2012. Un-intellectually speaking, I started skin-whitening much, much earlier.

As I did more academic research into this issue, I became increasingly upset. I would read tons and tons of articles written by self-identified feminists who would judge, shame, poke fun and generally caution women against skin-whitening. After talking it over with a good friend (shoutout to Jennifer!), I realized I was actually reacting to the massive shaming that was directed at women who chose to engage in skin-whitening practices. This type of ‘holier-than-thou’ critique typically comes from white women or lighter skinned brown women towards their darker-skinned counterparts. Some examples are Jezebel’s Lindy West who did this with her piece on groin-whitening feminine wash in India and Tyra Banks’ 2008 episode on skin-whitening among Black women from the Tyra Banks show. Just type ‘skin whitening feminist’ into Google and you’ll find more articles that tell you how bad it is to whiten your skin, how you are such a sellout/victim if you do it etc etc. Enough guilt and shame all around, really. Fun.

So I did what I usually do when I get angry – I wrote. And as I wrote, I came to realize my own stand on this issue. It is important I write this and put this out there for people to read. I want people to know that the issue of beauty, health and women’s self-esteem deserves more complex treatment than we have been giving it so far.

I feel it is important to shift the discussions around skin-whitening AWAY from the shaming and veiled policing of brown and black women and TOWARDS acknowledging that the issue is much more complex.

Skin-whitening practices are embedded in systems of capitalism, colonialism and male dominance. We need to acknowledge that women of color have to navigate through this ‘triple threat’ daily. We receive contradictory messages about how we should look and how we should be every fucking day of our lives and we are the ones who have to live with the imperfect choices we make. If we start to try to complicate this matter, we can start to do some justice to this issue.

First, we need to understand that the skin whitening phenomenon has a long history spanning Europe, North America, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and the African continent. White women were actually the target of skin whitening from the Greco-Roman period up into the mid-20th century. Marketing for skin-whitening products towards women of color only started in the 1950s when the press began to notice use of skin whiteners among African-Americans.  Today, the skin-whitening market is estimated to be worth $5.6 billion in Asia alone.

It’s no secret that historical and ongoing colonization sustains the ‘white is right’ ideals of beauty. One of the most obvious ways that this ideal of whiteness has stubbornly persisted throughout the centuries are the systems of pigmentocracy that developed globally across many communities of color. A pigmentocracy is ‘a social hierarchical structure based on favoritism of white skin and European-looking features’ (thanks to HernandezRamdwar at Ryerson University for this).  Basically, the less white and European looking you were, the lower you are on the social ladder.  Different pigmentocracies developed across the world – specific to the histories of colonialism, capitalism and male dominance of each location – although the underlying idea of ‘white is right’ is the same. The pigmentocracy in Brazil is different from India, which is different from Jamaica, which is different from the Philippines which is different from Singapore. You get my drift.

It is also important that we understand the pursuit of skin-whitening is not an aspiration to become white or ‘look like a white girl’. It is a quest to separate yourself from the Indigenous Black and Brown ‘look’. In insular South East Asia for example, rising through the pigmentocracy means separating yourself from the working-class, dark-skinned, Indigenous Malay look to an upper-class, lighter-skinned, Eurasian beauty. This is fundamental to understand because it adds more complexity to the issue versus simply thinking that all black and brown women want to become white. In a sense, we do want to ‘become white’ but it’s not the blonde hair, blue eyes or pale skin we covet…rather the gifts that come with whiteness. Its multiple and unyielding privileges.

Skin-whitening practices should be considered an “active strategy used by some groups to claim power over others in the same society’ (Lipsitz, 1998).  People who can ‘compete’ for the privileges of whiteness are those who can afford to participate. High-end skin-whitening products can cost anywhere between $20 – $500 a bottle and the ‘full range’ of products (facial wash, toner, moisturizer, day essence, night serum and spot-on correctors) can easily go up to $1000. Ironically, those who can afford expensive skin-whitening products are constantly reminded that we have to ‘keep this up’ because skin-whitening is rarely permanent. It takes money, time, dedication and constant vigilance to achieve and maintain fair skin and its privileges. A harsh reminder to folks of color that whiteness is not something that is earned, it is a privilege some are born with and others aspire and work towards.

If we start to look at skin-whitening as an ACTIVE strategy employed by black and brown women, we can start to move away from thinking that these women are PASSIVE victims of the systems who need ‘help’ and ‘advice’ from those of us who ‘know better’. Let’s be honest here – giving unsolicited advice, however well-intentioned and shaming women who choose to engage in skin-whitening is patronizing. I know, deep down, that I am fine the way I am. I know I shouldn’t fret over my freckles. I know I shouldn’t fret over my double A cup size. I know I shouldn’t think about the acne scars on my back. I KNOW all this. You don’t have to keep telling me.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that the choices we make with our beauty routine have everything to do with the pressures we receive about it. For me, this angst comes from my mother who still frets over her freckles. To me, she will always be my beautiful mother but now I know that telling her to stop fretting or that she is ‘pretty no matter what’ denies her own experiences of living in this shitty world which insisted on telling her otherwise. Telling her to stop fretting would also mean that I am myself, in denial about my own gripes with my body.  I grew up not only watching my mother fret but my grandmother, my aunts, my cousins and my friends fretting. If it was not their dark skin, it would be something else about their bodies.

Does this mean that I blame the people around me for ‘making me’ think this way? NO. By choosing to go through with my weekly ritual of skin-whitening, does it mean that I don’t love my Brownness, or that I’m not thinking of the examples I am setting for the young girls watching me? NO. Does it mean I wholly blame colonialism and capitalism for making this world the way it is and abdicating my personal responsibility for continuing to practice skin-whitening? NO.

Women make hundreds of choices everyday, and unless we are walking around in their heads, we have no idea what led them to the decisions they make. (many grateful thanks to Renee from Womanist Musings for this nugget of wisdom).

So yes, I am a skin-whitening feminist. And I am also an anti-racist activist.  My world is not a binary. I do not have to choose one or the other or be put into categories. This is how I choose to see the world. Because of this, I can embrace the complex, the complicated, the messy, things that don’t make any fucking ‘sense’ and things that don’t fit into the colonial viewpoint of right and wrong, black and white, skin-whitening sellout or staunch anti-racist feminist. I can be both because I choose to be both.I can learn to live with my contradictions.

One day, I want to be able to stop griping about the freckles on my face, my flat chest, and my acne scarred back (among other things). Until then, spare me the guilt and shaming. PLEASE.

As long as we live in a society that experiences ongoing colonization, capitalism and male dominance, the skin-whitening industry will always exist. We need to start complicating the notion of choice while also recognizing the need to access it. When we can begin and continue to complicate, decolonize our concept of beauty and disrupt its connection to the value of a person, we will allow ourselves to imagine a world that is far different than the one we inhabit today.

Words from an aspiring & recovering academic

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Last Saturday, I presented at the 3rd annual  F-Word conference held at UBC.  Alhamdulillah it went ridiculously well – I am glad to say. I got a lot of positive feedback and was inspired to take my own research into the topic of politicizing skin-whitening practices more seriously – perhaps even into a Masters thesis in the future inshallah.

I’ll be presenting on the same topic again later in June at another conference called the ‘Diversity Conference’. This conference will be different – for one, I will not be surrounded by people who know me and who respect my ideas. I will be surrounded by ‘academics’ who hold degrees higher than me and often times, carry around the distorted idea that more degrees somehow equate to them being more worthy to listen to. I am not naive and am fully aware that academic institutions often end up replicating the same power dynamics reflected in society. So call me paranoid or fatalistic or whatever you want but I am fully suspicious of stepping into this academic space coming up in June. After all, I’m just a brown Muslim woman with a Bachelors of Arts right? What gives me the right to say anything?  To challenge anyone?

I was just looking at the conference website again and noticed that there was financial aid offered to cover the registration fee of $550 for anyone who might not be able to afford that. I managed to pay the $450 fee as an ‘early bird discount’ and on my daddy’s tab. I am fully aware how privileged I am to have monetary support as well as social support from my parents who have been behind my from the first day I stepped foot onto UBC campus.

I am lucky. Many, many others are not as lucky as me.

I am an aspiring academic. But I am also a recovering academic. Is it possible to be both?

Academia fills our heads with lies that people with degrees are somehow more worthy than those without. I know this because I am living it. I know that my words somehow carry more weight than my mother’s for example, who constantly jokes that she is nothing but a ‘stupid housewife’. If my mother – a woman I respect , a woman who constantly told me to fight for my rights and a woman who raised me to value my voice and opinions – considers herself a ‘stupid housewife’ (even if it is a joke), what does that say? That if you don’t have a degree from some posh university, you are not worthy? That you are somehow less than the person next to you who happened to have the class privilege to go to Oxford?

That’s total bullshit.

I know so many people who have Masters and PhDs and are total racist/sexist/homophobic ego-tripping douchebags who proudly claim that they are the best progressives in the world. That’s something else that academia teaches you -they tell you that you are the most worthy, the smartest, the most special and then you begin to internalize it. Your language changes and your view of the world changes. You start to think you’re the sun and the moon when really, you’re nothing but another grain of sand on the shitty beach of life. I never want to forget that I am just another grain of sand.

My mother and father worked their asses off and made specific sacrifices to make sure that I could go to university. They made sure that my sisters could go to university. As with so many other middle-class parents, they had it ‘better’ than my grandparents who grew up in poverty and they wanted to make sure their kids ‘had it better’ than they did. They sent me an elite international high school where I flourished and they sent me to a university of my choice where again, I flourished. And yet, my parents are continually forced to defend their choice (and mine) to fork out the $100 000 for me to study overseas. Stupid people insist on asking them what’s useful about an Arts degree or insist on believing that my education is somehow less  or easier than their daughter’s or son’s because it is not from a ‘local’ university. They chalk up my successes in university to the more ‘liberal’ (read: easier) education system that exists outside of Singapore.

But enough from me bitching about ignoramuses who are content living under their coconut shells.

But more often than not, my university experience has alienated me and just served to remind me that I am not like the others in my class. I am not rich, I am not white, I am not upper middle-class, I am not Canadian, I am not a ‘local’….I am not enough. Which is probably why I woke up everyday and worked extra hard. To prove to myself, to my parents and to all those fuckheads out there that I could do this. I took myself really seriously as a student and my first-class standing will attest to that. Not to mention a mile-long record of co-curricular activities and social connections I have kept up until today. If you think I achieved all of that because I went through a less rigorous system of education or because my Women’s Studies degree was easier than an International Relations degree, you obviously have no idea what you’re talking about.

I am an aspiring academic but I am also a recovering academic. I know that when I go into grad school, I will be spending hard-earned money (or a combination of my parents’, my spouse’s and my hard-earned money) to get a piece of paper, a badge of honour I am supposed to be proud of, telling me that I have now proven my worth to survive in a white man’s world. I know that I will sit in class and be surrounded by ego-tripping douchebags who think they have the answer to the world’s problems because they have deluded themselves into thinking that they are the leaders of the future. I know that I will have to deal with people who disagree with me not because they don’t like my ideas but because they find me a threat. I know I will have to fight for what I want.

I guess it’s lucky that I was raised by a stupid housewife. Otherwise, I’d probably be living under a coconut shell.

Conference season is upon us!

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I am such a nerd. I get excited over conferences.

Last month, I attended the wonderful WAM!Vancouver conference – I still have to set aside some time and write a reflection for that event and how I was so re-energized at the end of that day, I chatted C’s ear off on the phone until midnight.

Tomorrow, I’ll be presenting at the F-Word conference on skin-whitening practices. Still chugging away at the 10 minute presentation I have to give…Last year, I gave a presentation at this conference on the ban of the burqa in France and was also a part of the organizing committee. I am looking forward to seeing new faces and reunite with old ones tomorrow.

I’ll also be presenting at another conference happening in June –  The 12th International Conference on Diversity.

And attending another one in June as part of the Vancouver Youth Dialogues Project.

Conference season is upon us and the sun has started to shine…the next few months will be beautiful.

How blessed I am.


Indigenous women and women of color RESIST

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I am featured in a blog post as part of blog series titled ‘ How Does She Resist?’ – Resisting Media Representations to End Violence Against Girls and Women’ hosted by the Battered Women’s Support System . The blog series commemorates Prevention of Violence Against Women Week (April 15 -April 21) and aims to engage the online community to resist media representations as a way to prevent violence against girls and women.

The author of the blog post is the co-founder of WAM! Vancouver, Joanna Chiu. She interviewed me for the piece entitled  ‘Indigenous women and Women of Color Media Makers Resist: How to Create the Media you Want to See in the World’. I talk about media representations of women of color and queer and/or trans women.

Here is an excerpt:

Today, as I was walking down the street to write at my favorite coffee shop, I received the usual afternoon greetings from my neighbours: “Hey baby!” “Konichiwa!” “Ni hao! “Look at that ass!!”

As all Indigenous women and women of colour know, if sexism wasn’t bad enough, we encounter racism on a daily basis as well—on the street, in the classroom, in the workplace, and in the media. (See the theory of intersectionality on how oppressions like racism, ageism and classism intersect.)

In media, women of colour are often hyper-sexualized, and depicted in racial caricatures: Kung Fu ladies, geishas, sexy Latina sirens, Pocahontas types, etc. That is, if we see ourselves represented in the media at all. According to’s State of the Media report, race and gender issues only accounted for 1% of overall news coverage. And how many women of colour lead actresses can you name in Hollywood, or who have graced the covers of glossy magazines?

Continue reading here!

The search for the history of my people

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In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful…

Last night, before I went to sleep, I was lying awake in bed thinking about my paternal grandfather, Arwah Tok Iswan.

I didn’t know him. My paternal grandfather. He died when my dad was a kid.

I didn’t know how he looked like because no one in my family had taken or kept a picture of him.

One day when I was 10 years old and at the museum in Singapura for a family outing, I saw his face.

I found out how my grandfather looked like by accident. I found out who he was by accident.

His photo was in the exhibition focusing on the history of Singapura, pre-independence years (1960 – 1965).

I still remember that photo – his passionate face, his fist in the air, the banner he was carrying. I try to remember every detail.

He looks like my dad.

I remember calling out to my mom who was a few steps behind and she was equally shocked to see the face of Arwah Totok Iswan. My late grandfather.

Last summer, my mother and I tried to secure a copy of that photograph but since it was nearly a decade ago, the Museum exhibits have changed.

It was a long and trying process. In the end, we didn’t manage to get the picture.

We did manage to get a clearer shot of what is pictured below but as you can see, his face is slightly out of focus. He’s the second guy from the right – with the songkok on his head.

This picture was taken on 23 September 1963 – at an event attended by UMNO supporters in Singapura welcoming Syed Albar – then Foreign Minister of Malaya who were visiting Singapura and its local UMNO (United Malays National Organization) branch members.

For those of you unfamiliar with Singaporean history, I’ll give you a brief rundown. Basically, after the British split and left Singapura at the mercy of the Japanese during WWII, people started demanding independence. Singapura and Malaysia merged briefly from 1963 – 1965 and then split. It’s no secret – we didn’t get along and it partly, if not largely, was because of racial politics. Singapura’s then (and now) Chinese-dominated political party and ideology (People’s Action Party – PAP) did not mesh well with Malaysia’s (then and now) Malay-dominated political party (The United Malays National Organization – UMNO)  and ‘bumiputera’ ideology which recognizes the Malays as Indigenous and accords them special privileges.

At the event on 23 September 1963 – where my grandfather is pictured above – Syed Albar accused the Malay candidates of the PAP to be ‘race traitors’. His comments are seen by many historians today as the catalyst for the 1964 Race Riots in Singapura. It was tough, turbulent times.

Before I stumbled onto that picture in the museum, I didn’t know a thing about my grandfather except that he died when my dad was a child.

I find it ironic that I started the search for my personal history and the history of the Malays as a kid in a museum. Museums are widely contested spaces especially for Indigenous peoples all over the world….and yet, that is where it all started.

In later conversations, my dad told me that my grandfather used to write for Utusan Melayu and was an active member of UMNO in Singapura.

My grandfather was a writer and an activist.

Like me.


If he was alive today, I wonder what he would have said to me?

Would he have told me that he took to the streets and marched so that I wouldn’t have to? Would he have told me that the battle is no longer to be fought on the streets, through rallies and speeches but in the classrooms, in academia, in the halls of ‘higher learning’?

What would I have told him?

In some ways, my search for my grandfather’s picture is similar to my search for my Indigenous,  Malay identity. Trying, long, arduous and emotionally taxing.

I did not believe I was Indigenous until I was 20 years old. I’m nearly 23 now.

It took me 20 years to believe that I was who I was, that my skin had a reason, that my language had a reason, that the stories my mothers and my grandmothers told me had a reason.

I’ve gotten into several arguments with Malay and non-Malay friends alike over this topic. It usually starts with them asking me to convince and/or prove to them my ‘Indigeneity’ as a Malay person.

For the record, I think this need to prove anything to anyone who doesn’t believe me when I say I am what I am is ridiculous. It reminds me of Americans asking Obama to prove that he was born in America. He finally showed them his birth certificate after being elected into the Oval Office, proving once and for all that he was born in the US. And even then, people don’t believe him. Since I don’t have a card that reads ‘I am Bugis/Boyanese/Malay/Indigenous, believe me!’ (like First Nations in Canada with their ‘status’ cards to ‘prove’ their Indigeneity) – I cannot pull an ‘Obama’. This obviously doesn’t stop people from trying to ask me to prove to them that I am indigenous as a Malay.

I do try anyway (sometimes).

The Malays are listed in the Singaporean constitution as ‘Indigenous’.

Article 152, part ii Minorities and Special Position of Malays

(ii) The Government shall exercise its functions in such manner as to recognize the special position of the Malays, who are the Indigenous people of Singapore, and accordingly it shall be the responsibility of the Government to protect, safeguard, support, foster and promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social and cultural interests and the Malay language.

Political designation not enough for you?

Alright – what about ‘scientific’ evidence?

In 2009, a comprehensive study of genetic diversity and history of Asian populations was carried out by HUGO (Human Genome Organization) involving almost 2000 people across Asia. The HUGO found genetic similarities between populations throughout Asia and an increase in genetic diversity from northern to southern latitudes. These findings indicates the origin of Asia’s population and support the hypothesis that Asia was populated primarily through a single migration event from the south, entering South East Asian first. The South East Asian civilizations including the Malays, are possibly much older compared to East Asian civilizations.

I can argue on and on and try to prove just how ‘Indigenous’ the Malays really are but in the end, it is like asking a grain of sand on the beach to prove that it used to be part of a mountain. It is both ludicrous and offensive – I, nor any other Malay person who claims ‘indigeneity’ because of their Malay identity, have nothing to prove to anyone. Just because our history have not been taught in schools, have not been neatly written in books, have not been written in a language or expressed in forms you can consider ‘legitimate’ doesn’t mean we are not Indigenous. It is not our problem that you refuse to understand that.

As with many other Malay kids in Singapura (and arguably many Indigenous communities across this planet), I was not taught my history in school. We were, all of us, led to believe that we are ‘immigrants’ to the land. I agree – we are all immigrants. Nobody can be Indigenous to a country that is only 47 years old this year.

When I say that the Malays are Indigenous, I mean that we are Indigenous to “Malayadvipa” – Sanskrit meaning ‘insular mountain continent’ which refers to insular South East Asian continent. Our people existed throughout the peninsula before borders were drawn and therefore, we are Indigenous to the peninsula, not to any specific country.

Our experiences with national borders (which are arbitrary and temporary) are similar to the experiences of First Nations and Native peoples who live on Turtle Island (present day Canada and USA) , the Mayans in Territorios Maya (present day Guatemala, Hondura, Mexico etc) and the Hmong who live across present-day China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Indigenous peoples all over the world existed in lands before borders were drawn by colonial forces or otherwise. This does not de-legitimize that we are Indigenous – borders being drawn were not of our doing but that of governments and people in power who did not understand that our ancestors did not see the world like they did.

So many of us have been fed the ‘we are all immigrants’ rhetoric by the majority-Chinese government in Singapore. While I do understand some of the motivations behind this discourse (a big one being preserving ‘racial harmony’ to avoid the horrific and violent race riots of the 1960s), I cannot stand by and support this rhetoric any longer. Not after taking the time to do painstaking research into my own history and the history of my people. Not after crying for many days and nights in a country 8000 miles away from home over the sheer frustration of only finding out about and believing my indigeneity at 20 years old. Not after feeling robbed from learning about my own identity and our rich and diverse history. Not after feeling ashamed for so many years about my brown skin and my flat nose. Not after writing fictional stories when I was a kid, imagining I was someone else…anything else but a Malay kid. Not after all of that. I cannot stand by this rhetoric any longer.

Indigenous communities all over the world are not taught to be proud of ourselves, our histories and our people. We are taught what governments want us to think, what border-makers want us to believe, what the ‘winners of history’ want us to buy into.

So many of us have been fed the ‘we are all immigrants’ myth so I understand how many of us feel alienated from the label ‘Indigenous’. I’m just starting to reclaim my Indigenous Malay identity so I understand how it might be difficult for others because it’s been a long and ongoing process for me.

This has not been easy to write. As I sit here and write, I ruminate over whether I am sharing too much ‘personal information’ or whether I will be considered ‘traitorous’ to Singaporeans who insist on erasing our painful history for the ‘greater good’.

I am experiencing many conflicted feelings.

Does acknowledging the fact that Malays are Indigenous make me less Singaporean? Does it make me a national traitor? Does it mean I am ‘not proud to be Singaporean’? Will I now put on my baju kurung and join UMNO thus denouncing the PAP? Will I immigrate to Malaysia where Malays are ‘treated better’? Why do I give a crap about any of this anyway?!

This is the eternal/internal debate for the Indigenous person who has been told that they belong within certain national borders when their Indigeneity clearly transcends the very borders that were not drawn by them. UMNO and PAP are two sides of the same coin to me – both are responsible for creating the arbitrary border that exists between our two countries. To me, these questions are for the narrow-minded, for those who do not understand Indigenous history and for those who insist on pledging patriotism to imaginary nation-states without first understanding the meaning and repercussions of creating borders. Borders alienate, they do not unite. Borders oppress, they do not free.

I write this with the hope of reaching out to other young Malay people who are interested in finding out more about your personal history and the history of our community. It was a long and hard road for me but let me tell you, it was worth every drop of sweat and trickle of tears. I am not done and not satisfied with what I have learned. I still have many questions.  When I get tired or downtrodden, I pause to catch my breath and then, resume the search again.

My personal history is a shared history. It is the history of our community.

…Last night, I lay awake thinking about what my grandfather would say to me if he was alive today.

I wish I knew him.